Sunday, July 15, 2001

The Marlboro Man

There are some pretty rough places between DC and the mountains.
The ones I saw were sandwich shops and most of those were at gas stations and they all featured a Marlboro Man.

Right off, you would notice his shoes. They were always worn and broken; all scuffed up, with loppy heels. His blue jeans were always dirty and his shirt was tattered, and he would come up to the counter, turn his head, cough on the back of his hand, and say: "Two Marlboros . . pleaseama'am."  The waitress would always plop down two packs, like she had been waiting all week for the chance, and say snippedly, " ...that'tal be six dollar su'nine cents!" Money would pass. A pack would be opened, it's cellophane top left floating to find its way to the floor. A cigarette would be extracted, tapped on a counter and then put in the mouth of the Marlboro Man as he strode out the door.

Once a man hesitated so long after being asked "What do you want?", that I began whistling the tune to the Adagio movement of Dvorák's symphony number Nine in E minor, Opus 95. Almost immediately the man who had not a clue seemed to recognize the melody because he said, "Oh! – I reckon I need a Marlboro – yeah!"

Later, as we were entering another sandwich shop at a gas station, a man and woman came in just ahead of us. The woman was wearing a dirty smock and was shuffling her bare feet along the concrete floor, obviously in pain and stark fear glowed like embers in her eyes. The man held her arm tightly, he, a first line supervisor of a tire repair place, perhaps, turned to me and smiling, said " Scuse, us, she's just had back surgr'y an'disina lota' Pain . . . ". He smelled of old beer, and after throwing his cigarette to the floor and grinding it under his booted toe and while his woman went to the Ladies Room, he went up to the counter, coughed and said " Two Marlboros, please Ma'am."

"That'talbe six dollar sand nine sints!".

"It's a pleasure, thank yuma'am." he said as money was put on the counter.

Well, at least there are no foreigners, I thought, ruefully remembering placid Washington which had been full of Asians. John Rocker, the Atlanta pitcher who had recently made comments about too many foreigners in baseball would be at home here!

The guy ahead of us in the sandwich line was asked: "Merikin cheeze or Swis?" He replied: "hay-marry-can". Until then we all thought he was an American.

"You wont tmeriikin"? she raised her eyebrows as if she was speaking to a child. "Si ... ." he said.

A real American walked in behind me. He had on dirty Nike shoes, baggy trousers and a tee shirt that said something about Hawaii. He also had a switch-blade knife he kept trying to snap open and then close. It didn't work very well. He looked disgusted and said a couple of foul words.

The Marlboro man caught his woman as she came out of the ladies room. They walked out, he with his grip on her arm, she shuffling her bare feet in obvious pain. Springsteen sprang out of the radio: " ... I'll be watchin’ you ..." The tire man’s lady was furtively glancing about with fearful eyes as if looking in vain for help. " ...ev’ry step you take ..." They got in his car and rolled away in a neck-snapping blaze of speed. " ...every breath - you take ... ."

"Umerkin or Swis?" the girl behind the counter looked to me as she wiped her brow with her forearm and then slumped forward, shoving her great weight toward her hands which rested on the sandwich counter.

"Swiss." I said with a hiss on the iss.

"Swis?" She looked surprised - Like I was the first one today.

"Si.” I said.

" She nodded her head as if she understood, but I noticed she put t'merican on it

So we arrived home with the long evening shadows, up on a ridge, high in the mountains, cool and dreamy with happy, tail-wagging doggies and some good pictures, not all of which were on tape or film.

©John Womack, 2005

Washington D.C.

Washington, D. C. July. No politicians were there, and most of the tourists we saw were foreign. Mostly Asian. John Rocker (the opinionated Atlanta Braves pitcher) reportedly wants to know where all “these foreigners” come from; I could tell him now, were I on speaking terms with him, that they all come from Washington. That’s probably why the crowds were so pleasant, well behaved, happy and convivial. I took in the outside of the Capitol (couldn’t figure out how to get inside), the Smithsonian Institution (all of it, I think), most of the museums, the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial and part of Arlington Cemetery. With my poor math capability, I computed that the Washington Monument, should it fall to one side, would only crush 1/3 of the people standing in line to get inside, so I didn’t run that risk. Grant still rides Traveler doggedly through the smog; the statute led me to wonder if Bill and Monica might be so honored in some Heffnerian future.
I also toured parts of the town itself. I found that driving up Wisconsin Avenue actually led one through alabaster cities gleaming, undimmed by human tears; and with brotherhood ... well, there are no human tears because there are no humans here. It seems to be a steril marketing commercial avenue. We had a good Mexican meal at a place called Guapos (which we found means “handsome”) and then a poor meal at an Italian place I won’t name, wherein even though I had asked that the pasta not be cooked more than five minutes, it arrived al gummé. Three blocks to the east, driving up Georgia Avenue, one appears to travel through a third-world nation that reminded me of my old hometown, Vicksburg, Mississippi, except that 50 years ago, Vicksburg looked somewhat better than this place does now. Things were not as run down back then, nor were there bars on every window, nor did anyone, much less everybody, seem to have cell phones attached to their ears. Still there seemed an absence of humanity in the shining city of Chevy Chase, while humanity pulsed and throbbed with laughter, song and drumbeat along this other great, noisy and multicolored way.
We went on board the moon that orbits Washington which is called the National Cathedral, a quiet sailing ship which rides away from its earthy anchor, nodding to its own cycles and riding serenely and brightly, ‘unphased’ by the hum of mother planet which boils and seethes and is filled with carnivores but is beneath its run.